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Paul Smith’s students explore yurt life

October 7, 2015
By SHAUN KITTLE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

PAUL SMITHS - It takes dedication to build a village of yurts.

A group of students approached Paul Smith's College field instructor Bethany Garretson last November and together they started developing the Osgood Pond Semester. The program began in August, and now seven students and two instructors are living in authentic Mongolian yurts located near the Paul Smith's College campus.

The site is a no-car zone, so students commute to campus by foot or bicycle and take their regular course loads, but the home they return to is void of modern amenities like electricity, heat and running water.

Article Photos

Seven students and two instructors of Paul Smith’s College are living in authentic Mongolian yurts, like the one pictured here, this semester.
News photo — Shaun Kittle

Garretson, who is one of the instructors living in a yurt, said the idea is to balance the materialistic and non-materialistic worlds.

"I think one of the best ways to teach is to show an example of what it could be like," Garretson said. "We would eventually love to have an off-the-grid, sustainable community where we're growing our food out here, we're raising animals out here. If we have any kind of electricity it's coming from solar or some other renewable source. The idea is to live simple."

Garretson said the goal of this semester is to get the students comfortable with their surroundings and to develop proposals for subsequent semesters. They've built platforms for the yurts using lumber milled by Paul Smith's students, and they've also made some furniture and an outside cooking area.

That's just the beginning, though. Walking around the property, Garretson envisions a working homestead with more yurts, a couple of cabins, a garden, animals, berry bushes and apple trees.

The berry bushes and apple trees are already there; the rest will have to be added by the students.

"Once we have livestock and food out here, I want to collaborate with the culinary program," Garretson said. "In this day and age, I think it's important where our food comes from."

The Osgood Pond Semester has several educational components woven into it. First, students learn how to live in the woods. Lessons include fire making, shelter building, trapping and packbasket weaving. After that, they'll visit local farms and learn about homesteading.

"I saw two of our students on bikes with their pack baskets going through campus," Garretson said. "It's little moments like that that make me smile."

When this semester ends, the students will have to take the yurts down so they can be stored for the winter. The structures were handcrafted in Mongolia and are designed to be moved.

A brightly colored wooden lattice system is erected to form the circular perimeter of the yurt, and then the outer layers, which include thick wool and canvas, are added. The entire structure is held together with camel hair and horse hair cordage.

Inside, the yurts are open and cozy. Wind does not penetrate the walls, nor does it shake them.

Garretson said semesters at Osgood Pond will give students homesteading skills and a sense of place in the world because there's a hands-on aspect and a communication component that comes from living and working together.

"These are the students who have grown up with global climate change being in the backdrop," Garretson said. "These are the students more educated on food systems than their own parents at times, and in knowing what's in their food. I really believe this is the generation that can make a lot of change."

To read about the Osgood Pond Semester from the students' perspective, check out their blog at



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